Car dealerships aren’t the only places where you’ll get an attack of sticker shock.

Walk down a textbook aisle in any college bookstore, and you’ll find eye-popping prices.

Textbook prices rose about 6 percent a year from 1986 to 2004 – adding up to a threefold increase during the period, according to a report from Congress’ Government Accountability Office and the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“I can remember back in the old days when we were selling textbooks for $3 or $4 used and $20 to $25 new,” said Patrick Linn, manager of the University of New Orleans bookstore and a 32-year veteran of the business.

“Now it’s not uncommon for a freshman-level biology or chemistry book to be $150, $189.”

Textbooks have become big business, even though the National Association of College Stores says the average college store’s pretax income is only 4.5 cents on the dollar.

Nevertheless, Barnes and Noble has a division that operates college bookstores across the country. That division’s president, Max Roberts, did not return calls seeking comment.

National groups have called attention to the trend, but solutions remain elusive. “It’s all based on the way the market works,” said Nicole Allen, director of the Make Textbooks Affordable campaign.

“We can’t tell legislators what to approve, and we can’t tell professors what to teach. We have to work with what the market gives us.”

Last week, Congress passed legislation that requires students be given information early about textbooks they will need to give them more time to bargain-shop.

It also raises by $150 – from $450 to $600 – the maximum amount of financial aid for books and supplies, and it requires that students be given versions of textbooks without extra features that raise prices.

These provisions are in the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, which Congress has sent to the White House for President Bush’s signature.

Meanwhile, students intent on cutting costs have worked out their own solutions. Some students share books; others don’t buy them at all, gambling they can pass the class without them. Others have become savvy shoppers who can reel off Web sites around the world where they seek lower prices.

“I’ve been able to buy some international student editions and used books online for 60 to 70 percent of what they’d be in a bookstore,” said Jack Torres, a junior math major at Tulane University.

Allen, of Make Textbooks Affordable, said students constitute a captive market.

“They buy whatever textbook is assigned,” she said. “People who choose the textbooks don’t have to buy them, and the students who have to buy them have to face these costs.”

In addition to normal inflation, textbook experts say, there are several reasons for the price hikes:

– A process called bundling, in which publishers include supplemental material, such as CD-ROMs and time-sensitive computer passwords. The new federal legislation requires publishers to sell unbundled versions.

– The time and labor involved in producing books, especially science texts.

– Features such as color illustrations and graphics designed to enhance a book’s appeal, as well as material such as quizzes that can be torn out.

– Frequent revisions that render past editions of the same book useless and relatively worthless. Though faculty members may seem to be at the mercy of textbook publishers, “they need to know they can challenge publishers about new editions and bundling,” said Sue Riedman, a spokeswoman for the Used Textbook Association, a 2-year-old organization representing wholesale bookstores.

When publishers urge teachers to pick new editions for their courses, “they need to say, “What’s changed? Can I use another book instead?”‘ Riedman said. “Faculty members are in a tremendous position to help.”

Such assertiveness may require a major behavioral change. Two national surveys by Zogby International showed 80 percent of faculty members “consistently look for the most recent materials,” said Bruce Hildebrand, a spokesman for the Association of American Publishers.

“They believe that the goal is to provide students with the best possible materials,” he said. “They buy books as much for supplemental technology and teaching aids as they pay for the book per se.”

Hildebrand said faculty members can also help students by customizing textbooks – telling students the chapters they will use, for instance, so they can buy those parts online at sites such as

Riedman conceded that students in rapidly evolving fields need the up-to-date texts.

“But in a calculus book, how much can change in two years?”


(John Pope is a staff writer for The Times-Picayune of New Orleans. He can be contacted at jpope(at)


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